The Southwest Washington Symphony opened their spring concert Friday night with the "Academic Festival Overture," by Johannes Brahms. Like many of the opening pieces chosen by conductor and musical director Ryan Heller, it is a shorter work that packs a lot of punch. It begins with a murmur in the strings achieved by soft, low notes played at a quick tempo. The music then crescendos to a bold, bright melody. There are overlapping solos by the clarinet, oboe, flute, and French horn. Brahms takes several different motifs and moves them throughout the orchastra so that they are played by different instruments and sections, and at a variety of tempos and volumes, changing their character each time they are heard. There were several very familiar melodies that have been used in other contexts.
The symphony’s spring concert always includes a piece showcasing one of the young musical artists in the region. "Concertina for Clarinet" by Carl Maria von Weber was performed admirably by Carrie Gradin of Kelso, Washington. Most of the piece was played at a rapid tempo. Ms. Gradin’s runs up and down the full range of her instrument were delicate and flawless. Her highest notes were full and strong without being forced or stretched. Her lowest notes were deep and soft. She smoothly accomplihed difficult changes between registers. Very poised on stage, Ms. Gradin played completely from memory. She started playing the clarinet at the age of eleven when she was living in Nairobi, Kenya.
The combined choirs of Mark Morris and R.A. Long High Schools joined the symphony on-stage for "Five Hebrew Love Songs." The songs flowed from one to the next without separation. There was a wide variety of mood as the songs progressed. The women and men sang as separate choruses in the beginning. Portions were slow and mournful, while others were light and quick.
The choirs remained on stage for excerpts from "Judas Maccabaeus," by George Frederich Handel. Brent MacKenzie, a senior at R.A. Long High School, sang the aria "Rejoice, O Judah." He sang with a full, sure voice easily heard above the supporting orchestra. The choirs joined him for the final Hallelujah, Amen. The voices blended well in this lesser known of Handel’s Hallelujahs.
The second half of the concert following intermission was Johannes Brahms’ "Symphony No. 1." Maestro Heller, in his introduction, called this symphony an “epic adventure” that Brahms had begun as a young man and finally completed 21 years later. The music of the first movement builds one’s anticipation of what is to come. The symphony responded to the changes in tempo and volume so the music could speak to the audience. The movement ended gently with some subtle crescendos and decrescendos and a final pizzacato, or plucked note on the strings.
The second movement , made lyrical with solos from the flute, oboe, and clarinet, ended with a long violin solo by concertmaster Donald Kirkpatrick. His highest notes, played very close to the end of the fingerboard, were clear and strong. Although his fingers were stretching, his notes weren’t. They weren’t hesitant or whispy, and he played them with vibrato. He held a final continuous note with barely perceptible bowing changes while the orchestra played their final chords of the movement.
The tempo picked up in the third movement. The woodwind voices traded off, and continued in a song-like character. Then the trumpets and French horns took the melody and its tone changed, building in intensity. The movement ended on a note of expectation.
The opening of the fourth movement sounds like a storm in the mountains as it repeatedly builds and eases off. When the storm passes, there the flute plays a gentle, pastoral theme. The French horns showed a different side to their character when they were playing with the trombones. They had a very deep voice, unlike their usual sound of a hunting horn. Maestro Heller described the final theme of the movement as a chorale theme. It is a well known melody that is played through in its entirety, starting again several times,each time the composer taking it apart and going off in other directions. The symphony reaches a dramatic conclusion, leaving the musicians and audience alike breathless, as a very energetic maestro jumps up and down in time to the final notes.
Mark your calendar:
The first concert of the Symphony’s next season will be on October 14. The fall concert is traditionally their “Pops” concert, with lighter, more well-known pieces. The theme this fall will be “Scary Stuff,” but don’t let that scare you away! Many of the pieces will be familiar from background music in movies, and even some cartoons.
Later in the season, they are going to tackle Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. You won’t want to miss that, either.
Were you at this concert? Please add your comments about the Symphony or the music in the space below.
Lynn Taylor is one of Columbia River Reader's performing arts reviewers. She is a veterinarian and a "reformed violin player" who now plays the oboe, with a wide variety of music genres on her iPod that she listens to while training for 5K and 10K fun runs.